Bhopal’s toxic waste raises stink

Bombay High Court stays transfer of Union Carbide waste to Maharashtra
Bhopal’s toxic waste raises stink

A NAGPUR Bench of the Bombay High Court has stalled the transfer of toxic waste from Bhopal to Maharashtra amid protests by residents and activists.

The decision comes a week after the Jabalpur Bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court ordered that 350 tonnes of the hazardous material lying at the defunct Union Carbide plant for 27 years be transferred and incinerated in Maharashtra. It had instructed the Madhya Pradesh government, the Defence Research and Development Establishment (DRDE) and the environment ministry to make arrangements within 10 days for the disposal of the waste at a facility of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) near Nagpur. The next hearing of the case is on July 28.

Following the Jabalpur Bench’s order, BJP MLA from west Nagpur Devendra Fadnavis and non-profits Vidarbha Environmentalists’ Action Group (VEAG) and Janmanch filed a public interest petition in the Bombay High Court against the disposal of the waste on July 19. The same day the court ordered a stay on the transfer till the hearing by the Jabalpur Bench on July 28. The Nagpur Bench also asked the petitioners to file an intervention petition before the Jabalpur Bench to avoid contradictory orders by different courts.

Thousands of people were killed in Bhopal when a poisonous gas leaked from Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in 1984. A year after the disaster, authorities collected tonnes of toxic waste and left it in the factory yard. Most of it remains untreated.

The Jabalpur Bench is hearing a petition filed in 2006 by the head of the Bhopal Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha, asking for safe disposal of the waste.

The site where the incineration is proposed is close to thickly populated Butibori MIDC (Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation), says Sudhir Paliwal of VEAG. “Air pollution from the incineration could put residents at risk,” he adds. The DRDO facility was chosen at the initiative of DRDE after the Madhya Pradesh government’s attempts to dispose it of in its own state and Gujarat failed due to stiff public protests.

During the July 19 hearing, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) said the DRDO facility did not take its permission to bring the waste into the state. Maharashtra’s environment secretary Valsa Nair Singh has written to the Madhya Pradesh government, saying the latter would require MPCB clearance to transfer the waste.

Satinath Sarangi of non-profit Bhopal Group for Information and Action says, “The Madhya Pradesh government is trying to downplay the seriousness of the issue. In 2009, it tried to declare the defunct factory’s premises safe and open the gates, but was prevented because of public resistance.” Refering to the current disposal order, Sarangi alleges it is influenced by the state itself. “This is clear from the fact that the decision was taken without checking whether clearances were in place,” he says. Sarangi’s colleague Rachna Dhingra asks, “Of the 27,000 tonnes of waste lying outside the factory that is contaminating the groundwater and the air in the area, why is the government destroying only 346 tonnes kept in a secure condition inside the factory?” A 2009 DRDE report says the toxicity level of the waste is low. But a 2009 report by Delhi non-profit Centre for Science and Environment shows groundwater in area three km away from the factory is highly contaminated with pesticides and heavy metals.

Activists have made public a letter written last year by the CEO of Thermax Limited, the only company that supplies incinerators in India. The letter says there is no incinerator in the country that can dispose of the Bhopal waste. The protesters are demanding the waste be transferred to an OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) country that has proper facilities for disposing of such waste, and that Dow Chemicals bear the cost.

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